Ferry Across the Mersey, MGM Style

‘Royal Wedding’…1951

Tucked away, almost secretly as only a movie studio can do, is a large passenger ship. Its glory days have long since sailed by. It sits docked in what must seem like an eternity for this old, unseaworthy relic. It may have seen as much history as The Queen Mary, it’s older-that’s for sure.

This ship is actually still waiting on its maiden voyage. Sure, you have seen this being boarded and unloaded in countless films. But unseaworthiness would be an understatement. It’s a false front. Different platforms can stick you in a porthole if need be, but the camera is really only interested in the dock, ramp, and deck. So, no fancy interiors exist inside nor did they ever. Priceless old graffiti greets you as you walk up the gang plank to board. Sir Johnny Mexico 1946 is scribbled on the interior wall.

We have played in this ship for years, as it is an extension of the Giant Toy Chest warehouse that doubles as a ship yard in its spare time. To board the ship from the front, you walk amongst space crafts in need of operators and bygone props.

Monsters, submarines, stage coaches and stuff that had nowhere else to go ends up here. Like some kid’s bedroom with those big oversized toys. The doors are airplane hangar size and can be pushed open or can be closed. These doors are more solid than the ship it conceals.

Gizmos and gadgets, parts of stuff that have been separated from their purpose, exist along port side. Like a movie set retirement home. But I get the feel the props that lay in wait here actually like each other. I imagine, often, they come to life when we leave. Yet-they stop dead when you look twice, making you think to yourself, “did I just see that move?”

Jimmy and I return to these same props all the time, but our adventures change. No two days are ever the same. This is close to the front gate and security always drives by here, but no one knows these props like us. We can escape by land, sea, or air…if need be.

Does the big rocket actually fly- only to return home with secrets? Do the rest of these props in the old warehouse want to chew on and enjoy the space ship’s discoveries, on his latest mission just completed? Did the submarine recover the capsule at sea? All the things needed for a mission are stored right in front of this ocean liner. Maybe a tea party is in order. Giant tea cups and a saucer, are parked along mission control row. Consoles that once lit up may reset their fuses in excitement. Each prop wanting to “outdo” the prop next to it…”Back in my day” type stuff!

Large coffee cups exist for large problems, I suppose. This huge hanger is the largest storage facility in the business. But it has been used to welcome and send off many a movie star.

The Mighty McGurk, 1947
Dean Stockwell arrives in America.

An A-list of MGM’s best performers set sail here. Gene Kelly in the Black Hand. Wallace Beery and Freddie Bartholomew in The Mighty McGurk, The Marx Brothers are some of my favorites. The Vets Tower stands proudly overlooking it’s lot, like a proud parent or big oversized spaceship that won’t inside.

Jimmy and I first discovered this place way back in 1972, we were extremely impressed.

Let’s Go There

It’s a Saturday, people rushing around doing stuff, simple stuff, each with their own secret care. But Jimmy and I are different. We work hard all week at school in anticipation of these weekend backlot excursions. In other words, we earn this privilege!

This is a play day! As soon as the Combat rerun of the day rolls it’s closing credit, we salute the TV and march with its wonderful theme song in our heads. How could you not be pumped up? Jumping the fence is like jumping back in time. We Time Travel almost daily. It’s 1972, again. The train tracks are a reminder of the reality of having to do things to prepare you for adulthood. But, as we touch down on the dirt that’s called MGM, these thoughts seldom if ever cross our mind. The last thing we think inside here is time going forward, or responsibilities, or expectations. We shed those clothes and put on uniforms from past armies. There is a whole room full of military jackets and helmets, Jimmy goes with clothing so old looking, it probably was in Ben-Hur…the first one. I choose WW2 today. I want to be a Sergeant, named Saunders. Luckily, they have my size.

It’s like we’re in some giant’s closet. We grab only what we need, just like we learned in the Twilight Zone episode with Ernest Truex. That way, the treasure chest will always be there for us. A towering three-story space ship is parked next to the door we exit from. I’m sure this same wardrobe room had spaceman outfits in it, since a bone yard of extra space parts sits around waiting to be reassembled…to something else.

As we board ship, we’re careful what boards we step on. If ever a ship needed life jackets, it’s this one. The interior is no ship at all, just a series of dilapidated platforms to stand on and to look out. Our ship sits in a concrete basin that can be filled with water which creates the appearance this ship can sail. It’s like some mirage, but one you can enter and exit. It’s as if magic built this place, and the magicians, wizards and sorcerers are still hiding here.

We feel welcomed…by what or who we’re not sure. Every prop wants to show off, but it requires an audience that (believes) in magic. Kids usually do, these two kids do, anyways.

This is the view from the upper deck of this ship, you are on board! I am looking through the big bull doors, props from decades ago, are on both sides of those doors. Tarzan’s jungle is off in the distance looking west.

Jimmy and I often look at each other, and one of us will turn and say “you gotta believe!” That’s a quote uttered on this lot by a little boy to Bolie Jackson, on our Brownstone street. That episode of the Twilight Zone forever will echo around this entire backlot. This place is loaded with magic, Ya just Gotta Believe!

This ship never needs to sail again, ‘cause this land’s the place I love, and it’s here I wish to stay...

Written and lived by Donnie Norden…

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